VEERHOFF, Washington's longest- running commercial art gallery, opened in 1871 as purveyors of "wall decorations," which then included "pictures, mirrors, wall-papers and window shades," along with frames. By 1893, Veerhoff had opened three downtown branches, put a new frame on the Declaration of Independence and acquired some competition from Venable's, which had just opened near Dupont Circle. Where both galleries still live.

"We were all originally picture framers who pushed pictures on the side," says Maurice Mickelson, who opened Mickelson's Frame Shop at 709 G St. NW in 1933. "Artists would come in to get frames, and we'd show their pictures. If we didn't do framing, believe me, we couldn't afford to be in the gallery business."

It wasn't until after World War II that galleries began appearing in larger numbers, and in other guises. One of the liveliest spots in the '50s was the lobby of the Dupont Theater, a moviehouse where Gene Davis and Morris Louis had their first Washington shows. There were other memorable galleries, now long gone, including Barnett-Aden, Obelisk, Gres and Jefferson Place.

One that survived is Franz Bader Gallery, which opened in the '50s near the White House, and mounted shows by Washington artists in a tiny space at the rear of what was primarily a bookshop. In 1967, Henrietta Ehrsam -- better known as Henri -- closed her used clothing-and-art shop in Alexandria and became the first art dealer to open a gallery on what came to be known as the P Street Strip, near Dupont Circle. Within a decade, close to a dozen -- mostly new ones -- joined her there, bringing to life Washington's first full-blown commercial gallery "scene."

Today, Henri Gallery still holds forth on the corner of 21st and P NW, despite skyrocketing rents, while all the others but the Touchstone cooperative have moved on, seeding new gallery clusters elsewhere. One group relocated just two blocks north, on or near R Street, and has since attracted the largest concentration of galleries in the city -- 25 of them -- all within strolling distance of the Phillips Collection.

A second group pioneered a downtown area centered at 406 Seventh St. NW, where a half-dozen galleries, including several of the city's finest, can still be found.

The Georgetown gallery scene, more widely scattered, has also been growing over the past few years, with several new establishments joining two of the city's most venerable dealerships there -- Adams Davidson, which specializes in 19th-century American art (as does its younger neighbor Taggart, Jorgensen & Putman), and Fendrick Gallery, nationally recognized for showing work by major contemporary Americans, among them painter William Bailey, kooky ceramic sculptor Robert Arneson and such artist-craftsmen as master furniture-maker Wendell Castle and wrought-iron sculptor Albert Paley.

But that's not all. There are dozens of other galleries -- more than 60 in all -- showing original works of art scattered from Adams Morgan to Bethesda, Alexandria to Takoma Park, Kensington to Arlington -- not to mention the scene in Baltimore.

Whether you're seeking edification or decoration, old talent or new, there's probably a gallery here that, sooner or later, can set your heart to pounding. (If your heart was set on the latest paintings by art world heavies like Jasper Johns, of course, or paintings by Matisse, you'll have to go to New York -- or find a dealer here who'll help you out.)

There is one Washington dealer -- the low-profile Jem Hom -- who deals regularly in upper reaches of the modern European market, so if you're looking for prints or drawings by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Degas and others of that ilk, he's your man. Chris Middendorf also handles major American artists from the 20th century, both printmakers and painters like Ralston Crawford, Georgia O'Keeffe and others from the Stieglitz circle.

So, where to begin? The best way is to pick a neighborhhod and plunge in. The Dupont Circle galleries, the largest and best organized group, have published free maps of the area, and also sponsor periodic "art walks" and coordinated shows, such as their annual joint effort devoted to "New Talent."

A wealth of good photography galleries in the Dupont Circle area has also led to other outstanding joint efforts such as "Five Great Moments in Photography," last spring's show by four neighbors who specialize in Photography: Jones Troyer (1614 20th St. NW), Kathleen Ewing/Marie Martin (1609 Connecticut Ave. NW), Tartt Gallery (2017 Q St. NW) and Middendorf Gallery, another top-notch contemporary gallery a few blocks away at 2009 Columbia Rd. NW.

With or without a special theme, there are always shows worth seeing, artists and dealers ready to talk, and enough good restaurants nearby -- including the Phillips Collection tearoom -- to make an afternoon stroll.

The gallery center downtown known as 406, at 406 Seventh St. NW, has the added lure of being close to the Mall museums, the National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American Art complex, and the Washington Project for the Arts, an important artist-run nonprofit space in the same block.

At 406, Barbara Kornblatt, Jane Haslem, Ramon Osuna, Nancy McIntosh Drysdale and David Adamson are all first-rate dealers and well worth visiting. Like most galleries in Washington, they focus on contemporary art, although Osuna also mounts annual shows of Italian Baroque painting and handles Spanish Colonial paintings as well. Haslem, known nationally as a leading dealer in handmade 20th-century American prints by Frasconi, Lasansky, Peterdi and others, also sells work by leading cartoonists. McIntosh/Drysdale, more than any other dealer in town, knows and enjoys exploring the best of recent cutting-edge art, including artists like Scott Burton and William Wegman.

Other less conveniently clustered galleries are worth visiting, among them an adventurous new outpost downtown (with a New York branch) named Walker, Ursitti & McGinniss, at 457 M St. NW; Plum Gallery in Kensington, which has a wide range of high quality, domestically-scaled works of art; the Torpedo Factory and Gallery 4 in Alexandria; the Arlington Arts Center, a nonprofit space that has a sharp eye for new talent; and Capricorn Gallery in Bethesda, the latter only for passionate fans of traditional realist painting -- preferably those who don't mind a jumble. Proprietor Phil Desind, a retired mathematician and compulsive collector himself, is open Friday nights and Sunday afternoons, and is always full of amazing tales.

Around Washington as elsewhere, galleries come and go regularly. But there are more professionally run, financially sound dealerships here than ever before, and the Washington Art Dealers' Association, now 21 members strong, was formed in 1981 to help to recognize professional standards among peers, and to build public confidence in the profession. Members must have been in business for at least four years, must show only original works of art (not reproductions or posters), and must carry on a regular program of exhibitions which are free and open to the public.

"It also gives the public a certain amount of recourse if they're in doubt," says activist dealer Kathleen Ewing. "Just because something is matted and framed doesn't mean it's an original work of art."

How do you find out what's on view? The latest issue of Galleries magazine -- an invaluable little handout that lists (for a fee) nearly all of the worthwhile galleries in town (though some, like trendy Govinda, where such as Andy Warhol and Annie Liebovitz are shown, are for some reason absent). Other area publications, including the new Washington Museum and Arts magazine, and The Post's Friday Weekend section, regularly carry listings.

And if you find a gallery that is of particular interest, ask to be placed on the mailing list. One of the best things about Washington galleries is their warmth and willingness to be helpful.